Saturday, December 12, 2009
Proust and the Squid
Proust & the Squid: the science of the reading brain / Maryanne Wolf
This is another selection in my current streak of books about the purpose of reading in our lives. This one differs a little as it focuses on the neuroscience behind the process of reading, and looks at it also from the point of view of the brain which can't quite figure out that process, the brain of dyslexics.
I found it overall an engaging read; neuroscience is intrinsically fascinating to me, and to have neuroscience and reading in the same book, well, how could it get better than that?
The book is set up in three sections: the first, a look at how reading and writing evolved in history; the second, a look at how the brain deciphers written language and shapes itself to become a reading brain; and the third, a discussion of what can be learned about the brain and reading through the study of dyslexic brains.
I love this kind of writing; reading is obviously very important to me, personally and professionally, and this gave me a lot to think about. The first section, on the development of writing and alphabetic systems in human history, ties in to a couple of other books on my shelves (and doesn't reading one thing always lead to more?). I'm currently reading Joseph Gold's The Story Species, which also discusses this topic, and have Leonard Shlain's The Alphabet and the Goddess on tap. Looking at how the actual form of writing, whether alphabetic or ideographic, affects the brain, Wolf draws many conclusions about the process of deciphering text. This then leads in to the second part of the book, a discussion of how children's brains are shaped by learning to read, and how the brain adapts itself to support the reading function. Not knowing the science behind this topic, I can't say whether it is all as straightforward as is presented, but Wolf writes very compellingly, and has many endnotes to support her argument. (which of course leads to more reading...)
The last section of the book was focusing on dyslexia, Wolf's area of study. While it was interesting and certainly showed how passionate she is about this topic, it was of slightly less immediate interest to me. Educators might find it very helpful, however, and parents of dyslexic children certainly would as well. I enjoyed this book - her writing is very readable despite some of the dry research she is sharing. This is a good book to pick up if you are interested in the development of reading itself and how our physical structure supports our cultural invention of reading and writing.
If you are intrigued by the science of the reading brain there is also a wonderful website called On Fiction which is all about the psychology of reading and links to hundreds of other books and research that you might like to explore.
Tom at A Common Reader sums it up very nicely
Eva at A Striped Armchair gives it her seal of approval
Jess at Start Narrative Here takes a look